One-Minute Book Reviews

July 23, 2009

Eric Hodgins’s Classic Comic Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ — You Think Your Problems With Contractors Are Bad?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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A  classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: This site has also posted a review of the sequel to this novel, Blandings’ Way, and a reading group guide to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which you can find by using the search box.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

This is a repost of a review that first appeared in 2007. I am on a brief semi-vacation.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 8, 2009

Daniel McGinn’s ‘House Lust’ – Why Americans Crave Remote-Controlled Toilets, Supersized Homes and Gossip About How Much Stars Paid for Their Digs

A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.

Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.

But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves).  Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:

“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”

An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”

Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”

Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.

Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good,  so they’re self-defeating.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: January 2008

About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 15, 2008

A Guide to New York That’s Worth Waiting on Line for

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 pm
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AIA Guide to New York City: Fourth Edition. New York Chapter/American Institute of Architects. By Norval White and Elliot Willensky. Three Rivers, 1,056 pages, $37.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

No urban guidebook has brought more joy to my life than the American Institute of Architects’ AIA Guide to New York City, my indispensable companion when I lived in New York. This modern classic is the definitive street-by-street and building-by-building guide to the five boroughs, illustrated with thousands of clear postage-stamp–sized black-and-white photographs.

No matter where you are in the city, you can look up your spot, read about it, and, often as not, find something surprising or wonderful nearby. The authors focus on what is most interesting about the architecture of each building they include. But they can pack a remarkable amount of social, cultural and historical background into their pithy and opinionated descriptions. They write of 867 Madison Avenue, the site of the former Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House and current Ralph Lauren flagship store:

“Every part of this building exudes personality: bay windows, a roof line bristling with dormers and chimneys. The extraordinarily ornamented neo-French Renaissance limestone palace has captured the imagination of the commercial world since 1921, when it was first occupied by an antiques firm. It has subsequently housed interior decorators, auction houses like Christie’s of London, the Zabar family’s East Side outpost E.A.T., and now fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s flagship retail outlet. Rhinelander Waldo, socialite, hero of the Spanish-American War, and police commissioner can be observed ‘in action’ in the novel and movie Ragtime.”

Last revised during the Giuliani administration, the AIA Guide to New York City has some out-of-date material. But it hardly matters when it has so much that you can’t find anywhere else in such a compact and appealing form. The Michelin Green Guide to New York City is better for tourists and new residents who want a guide to the city’s landmarks. But if you say “wait on line” instead of “wait in line” and wouldn’t dream of referring to Sixth Avenue as “Avenue of the Americas,” this is your book.

Best line: White and Willensky are unafraid to show a little New York attitude, and their book is times as entertaining as it is authoritative. The entry for Tavern on the Green says: “The entrance to this chronically remodeled eating-drinking-dancing spot, built around Central Park’s 1870 sheepfold, is at 67th Street and Central Park West. Expensive. (At night the trees, wrapped to the roots in their minilights, suggest an invasion of bulb people.)”

Worst line: Some of us will forever miss a few of the vanished factoids of the first edition. Among them: the egg cream – a drink that used to be as much of a New York culinary staple as the Coney Island hot dog – contains neither egg nor cream.

Recommendation? A great gift for anybody who loves art, architecture, antiques or history as much as New York City.

Furthermore: There are AIA Guides of varying quality to other major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis and St. Paul. The AIA Guide to New York City is the gold standard in the field.

Links: New York Times article on the making of the AIA Guide to New York City query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407E3D61638F931A1575BC0A96F958260; Michelin Green Guide to New York City www.langenscheidt.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=3184.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 5, 2007

A Closer Look at a Florentine Treasure, Ghiberti’s Glorious Baptistery Doors — In a New Book and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Filed under: Art,Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 pm
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A great exhibit comes with a handsome companion volume

By Janice Harayda

On, joy and rapture unforeseen! On Saturday I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new show of bronze reliefs from the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti over a 27-year period in the mid-15th century. And when I’m counting my cultural blessings for the year, I can stop right there with a profit.

The exhibit displays only 3 of the 10 bronze reliefs from the doors that depict Old Testament scenes, a jewel of the Renaissance. But the show is so rich — in beauty and interpretation — that it might change your view of one or two of the subjects of the reliefs: Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. Did you remember that David beheaded Goliath after he smote him with his slingshot? You’re unlike to forget it if you view the panel about them. The New York Times‘s critic was right when she said in a recent review that this show almost makes you feel sorry for Goliath.

One of the remarkable aspects of the exhibit is that Ghiberti’s craftsmanship is so precise, you can see the use of high, middle and low relief in the same panel — a technique I haven’t seen shown as clearly anywhere else. You may be able to get a sense of this if you enlarge the book cover at right, which shows a detail from the Adam and Eve panel. At the bottom center you see God (looking like many artistic representations of Jesus) creating Eve from Adam’s rib in middle relief. At the top center you see another image of God — in a hat, looking down on Creation — surrounded by angels in low relief. Another scene in the Adam and Eve panel, which you can’t see, shows God in high relief.

I couldn’t afford the handsome companion volume to the show that the Met was selling, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece/High Museum of Art Series (Yale University Press, 184 pp., $45) www.yale.edu/yup/, edited by Gary M. Radke, a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. But this is a book to check out at your local bookstore or an online retailer if your holiday gift list includes a lover of art, architecture, Italy or the Renaissance. Better still, go to the Met www.metmuseum.org and take a look at the book after you’ve seen the show, also called “The Gates of Paradise.” You have until January 13.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 2, 2007

Lynn Curlee Puts His Own Spin on the World’s Tallest Buildings in ‘Skyscraper,’ a Picture Book for 8-to-12-Year-Olds

Skyscraper. By Lynn Curlee. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 8-12.

By Janice Harayda

Lately I’ve been looking into some of the potential candidates for the Newbery and Caldecott medals that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. As usual, it’s been both inspiring and disheartening.

Some publishers are clearly putting enormous care into turning out wonderful children’s books. At the same time, they are continuing to pander nakedly to the all-important school and library markets, sometimes undermining the accuracy or credibility of an otherwise worthy book.

A recent casualty is Lynn Curlee’s Skyscraper, a beautifully produced social history of the world’s tallest buildings, which has an elegant Art Deco design and color palette. This book might seem to have little in common with Brian Selznick’s novel in words and pictures, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But like Selznick, Curlee has created a book for 8-to-12-year-olds that plays successfully with form. Skyscraper is a picture book with chapters (though they aren’t identified as such but are introduced by quotations from famous architects such as I.M. Pei and Robert Venturi).

A typical spread consists of a right-hand page with a color illustration of a skyscraper and a left-hand page with at least 250 words of text, more than in many chapter books. It’s a fresh treatment of its subject that brims with interesting material. Did you know that the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, “the first great New York skyscraper,” looks like “the prow of a ship steaming up the avenue”?

But Skyscraper also shows how egregiously publishers can pander to the prevailing ideologies at many schools and libraries. Curlee writes that up to 3,400 people worked on the construction of the Empire State Building at the same time: “A number of these men were Native Americans, who had a reputation for working fearlessly at great heights.”

That might have been fine if the book had also mentioned a few of the other ethnic groups who worked on the first skyscrapers in far greater numbers than Native Americas, such as the Italian stonemasons who learned their trade in their homeland before applying their skills in America. It doesn’t. And through such omissions, this book insults the many Italian and other immigants who risked their lives to create the glorious skylines of Chicago, New York and other cities early in the 20th century. The message it sends to their young descendants is clear: “Your ancestors’ contributions aren’t as interesting or important as those of Native Americans.” But why would the Mohawks’ famous skywalking be less interesting to 9-year-olds than work on the great stone gargoyles that adorn so many skyscrapers?

It gets worse when Curlee describes the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, he says, “a band of radical terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and attacked the United States, using the comandeered aircraft as lethal guided missiles.” That “radical terrorists” is absurd on two counts. First, the word “radical” tells you nothing — in a sense, every terrorist act is “radical.” And in the case of Sept. 11, the terrorists were the opposite of the usual definition of a “radical” — they were Islamic fundamentalists or reactionaries. Why doesn’t Skyscraper say this? Apparently because to do so might have offended some Muslims and made the book a tougher sell to schools and libraries. Instead we have a book that could leave some children with the idea that the attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by, say, a remnant of the radical Weather Underground of the 1960s.

Obviously children’s picture books need to present their material at an appropriate level for their readers and omit some of the nuances of books for adults. But many children’s authors have shown that this doesn’t have to involve spinning history in a way that slights or denies the role — good or bad — that different ethnic groups have played in it, whether they are Italian stonemasons or Islamic fundamentalists. Those authors are the ones who deserve awards from librarians and others.

Best line: One of the strengths of Skyscraper is that it looks beyond architecture and situates buildings in a human context, as in this passage: “Immense buildings cause controversy because they do not belong just to their owners. Once they are built, everyone must live with them. They totally transform the neighborhoods in which they are raised. Since they consume enormous amounts of energy and cause congestion, there are very real questions about their worth. Who should make the decisions about building structures that affect everyone? Just how do skyscrapers benefit society? How do skyscrapers contribute or detract from the conditions of life in a city? What form should our cities take? How densely should huge buildings be packed together? How big is too big?”

Worst line: Curlee’s account of Sept. 11, quoted in the review.

Published: March 2007 www.simonsayskids.com

Furthermore: Curlee www.curleeart.com won a Sibert Honor Award for his Brooklyn Bridge. He also wrote Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields and other books for children.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 25, 2007

Rudolf Nureyev (and Others) Slept Here: Derry Moore’s ‘Rooms’

The 12th Earl of Drogheda visits the homes of aristocrats and others in Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna and elsewhere

Rooms. Photographs by Derry Moore. Text by Carl Skoggard. Editor: Joseph Holtzman. Rizzoli/Nest Books, 263 pp., $60.

By Janice Harayda

Books about interior design typically show rooms with character. Derry Moore’s Rooms shows rooms with characters.

Rudolf Nurevey, Lady Diana Cooper, the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Duchesses of Devonshire and de Mouchy — all are among the aristocrats of birth or achievement whom the 12th Earl of Drogheda has photographed over three decades. Moore aims to capture, not romanticize, his subjects. So he looks beyond Nureyev’s deep cooper bathtub and the Sargent portrait of the granddaughters of an earlier Duchess of Devonshire that hangs in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth. He offers glimpses of faded paint, threadbare silk, buckled wallpaper, tilted lampshades and a roll of toilet paper.

In that sense his book has something of the twilight-of-the-gods air of Andrew Bush’s great Bonnettstown. Rooms also has a bracing and opinionated text by Carl Skoggard, who situates good design – as Jane Austen did – in the context of morality. “Here, you will find no effort to intimidate by means of a display of grandeur (or false grandeur),” Skoggard writes of the château Le Fresne, near Tours. “Nothing overawes through its size.” You could say that “Le Fresne and its unforced elegance express the unfeigned goodness of dispositions naturally moral.” This may be a reach. But Skoggard’s writing has much more life than the sycophantic prose of most design magazines. Like Moore’s haunting photographs, his text usually is, as the introduction notes, “impractical in the best sense of that much maligned word.”

Best line: Prince Tassilo von Fürstenberg’s former hunting bristles with so much taxidermy that Skoggard wonders if an Austro-Hungarian decorator tricked it up “with suitable remains”: “Recall Vladimir Putin’s astonishment when he suggested to his friend George Bush that the two of them saddle up for a ride around the ranch, only to be told that his host could not ride a horse at all.” This is one example of Skoggard’s refreshing willingness to confront a truth rarely acknowledged in books about interior design: Décor is always, in part, a commentary on politics.

Worst line (tie); The chapter on the gardens of Powis Castle in Wales is written, preciously, from the point of view of its yew trees. And Skoggard’s usual good taste fails him in his justification of opulence of Indian rajas and maharajas: “Where poverty is widely shared and there is no shame in being poor, ostentation on part of the well-off few becomes public entertainment, a benefaction shared by all, legitimation of things as they happen to be.” Exactly how did the poor “share” in the opulence when, as the Wall Street Journal said in its June 23–24 edition, the “untouchables” (now known Dalits) “were barred from temples used by upper-caste Hindus and from upper-caste homes”? Did they “share” it the way the homeless in Manhattan share Donald Trump’s wealth by gazing at Trump Tower?

Recommendation? This book could be a great gift for an architect, interior designer or traveler who loves visiting stately homes like Chatsworth.

Consider reading also: Andrew Bush’s Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989), a remarkable portrait of three elderly aristocrats during their final days in their decaying 18th century Georgian manor house in Ireland.

Published: November 2006 www.derrymoore.com.

Furthermore: The New York Times ran a good article on Moore, “Insider’s View of Society’s Vanishing Rooms,” on Nov. 23, 2006. [I can't get a direct link to work, but you can find it easily by Googling "new york times" and "derry moore."]

 

 

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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